How to Format an Appellate Brief


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The appellate brief is undoubtedly one of the most complex pleadings, formatting-wise. Formatting requirements vary from court to court, going so far as to dictate the size and font of your type, your margins and your line spacing. (If you’ve ever had to do a U.S. Supreme Court brief, I feel your pain.) Even before you consider the text of your argument, you have to wrap your head around which pages have which style of page numbers, whether you must furnish a table of authorities, and how you have to deal with any appendices or references to the record.

First, take a deep breath. Unless this is the first time anyone in your firm has ever submitted a brief in that particular court, someone probably has a sample for you to look at. Armed with that and a copy of the court’s rules, you can start putting together the skeleton of your brief:

Sample Format Summary - 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Sample Format Summary – 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Obviously, one tutorial can’t cover all of the possible permutations of briefing requirements. But armed with a knowledge of how some common elements work, you can successfully tackle virtually any court’s requirements.1

Step One: Build the Skeleton

One of the most common requirements of appellate briefs is that they are divided into multiple parts requiring distinct page numbers. In Microsoft Word, this means you need to divide the document using section breaks to enable a distinct page setup for each section. Using the 11th Circuit requirements as an example, Section 1 (which would have no page number) would be the cover page. Section 2 (the first page of which would be numbered with a lowercase roman numeral “i”) would contain preliminary information such as the Certificate of Interested Persons, Statement Regarding Oral Argument, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities. Section 3 (the first page of which would be numbered with an Arabic numeral “1”) would be the body of the brief. Depending on the case, a subsequent section may be needed for references to the record or other appendices.

Even if you plan on doing wholesale copy-and-paste maneuvers from the previous brief, it’s helpful to start with a blank Microsoft Word document and insert the several sections. Section breaks are very much like regular page breaks, except they allow you to have a distinct page formatting for each section.

Before you start dividing your document into sections, however, you need to be able to see what you are doing. That means turning on all of the visual indicators that show you where paragraph breaks, tabs, and Section Breaks have been inserted. To do that, go to the Home tab and click on the button that looks like a paragraph symbol. This is called the Show/Hide button and can be toggled on and off as needed.

Now you are ready to start sectioning your document. To insert a section break, go to the Page Layout tab and click Breaks, then click Next Page under the Section Breaks section:


Once you have done that twice, you have the three basic Sections needed for your brief: the cover page, the section containing the various preliminary information, and the main fact and argument section.

Now, here’s how you insert the page numbers in the footer of each Section so that they number and format independently:

Step Three: Format Headings

Office for Lawyers author Ben Schorr has observed that Styles is by far the most important feature to learn in Microsoft Word. Not only does Styles help ensure uniformity of formatting throughout a complex document, Styles also drives other features like Tables of Contents.

While a comprehensive explanation of Styles is beyond the scope of this article, you will need to have at least some facility with Styles in an appellate brief. Specifically, you want to decide how you want your first-, second-, and third-level headings to appear in your brief (bold versus regular type, underlining, indentation and hanging indents, numbering, etc.).

The simplest way to get a jump on your headings Styles is to alter the existing ones in your document. Although you can right-click on a Style listed on the Home tab and then choose Modify to change settings like font, type size, bold, underline, indentation, and more.



Perhaps the easiest way to get a heading style to look exactly the way you want is to apply formatting to some text in your brief (you can just type a sample heading for this purpose and delete it later), select the re-formatted text with your mouse, then right-click the heading you want to restyle and choose “Update to Match Selection” (the first choice shown in the first illustration above). This will save you from having to go through a maze of menus you may not be familiar with.

You ae probably thinking, “Why on earth would I want to bother with all these Styles?” Here are three reasons:

  1. Defining your heading Styles up front will enable you to apply them throughout your brief with a single click. Because these are technically Paragraph Styles, you can place your cursor inside your heading text and single click on the heading Style in the Styles section of the Home tab to format the heading instantly.
  2. If you use Styles to format all your headings, and you later decide to change the formatting of, for instance, your first-level heading, you can change the Style and all the headings within the brief will reformat themselves.
  3. The Styles for headings 1-9 are automatically pulled into the Automatic Table of Contents, thus saving you the trouble of having to mark heading entries. You’re going to have your hands full marking the Table of Authorities entries as it is.

For more on using Styles, see my previous tutorial.

Step Three: Write Your Brief

While that’s a deceptively simple sounding step (and an obvious one), there’s an important reason for putting that step here rather than continuing with more formatting work. Steps like inserting a Table of Contents or Table of Authorities or even marking citations are best left for when the text of your brief is close to its final form. Because of the way Microsoft Word uses fields in these features, it’s better to not be moving large chunks of text around or doing major editing with these fields embedded in the brief. Otherwise, you risk mangling a Table of Authorities entry so that the reference to the case is separated from the actual citation, making the page numbers in your Table of Authorities incorrect.

Step Four: Insert Your Table of Contents

Once the editing of your brief’s main text is nearly finished, you can move toward putting in the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities. Since you’ve used Styles for your headings, the Table of Contents will be relatively simple. Just go to the References tab and, over on the left, click on Table of Contents and choose one of the automatic tables in the list:



If the default formatting of the Table Contents isn’t to your liking, reformat whichever element you like, then right-click on it and choose Styles, then “Update [style name] to Match Selection”. For example, the default formatting of the Table of Contents heading was left justified rather than centered, so I centered the heading by using the shortcut key CTRL-E, then right-clicked on “Table of Contents” and updated the TOC Heading Style. This way, if I ever have to regenerate the Table of Contents, it will remember that I prefer that heading centered rather than on the left.


Since you haven’t actually marked any citations, you can’t insert a Table of Authorities yet. That’s okay, because marking citations is our next step.

Step Five: Mark Your citations

As long as you’ve got your Blue Book formatting rules down cold, marking citations for a Table of Authorities is fairly straightforward. Find your first citation and select it with your mouse or keyboard. Then either use the keyboard shortcut ALT-SHIFT-I (which works in all versions of Microsoft Word from 2002 on up) or click on the Mark Citation button on the References tab:

Mark citation button in Microsoft Word

Either way, you will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Mark Citation dialog in Microsoft Word

Choose the TOA category (case, statute, etc.) you want that citation to appear in, then make the necessary changes to the Short Citation beneath. If you’re certain that you have been consistent in using the same short citation for that case throughout your brief, you can use the Mark All button to mark all of the subsequent citations of that case. However, you may be wise to go through the brief manually to make sure you pick up everything.

Here’s where having Show/Hide turned on comes in handy, because now you’ll see the field codes that signify a marked citation:

Hidden text markup for Table of Authorities

If you are curious about what all that gobbledygook really means, see “Before you generate that TOA” in my previous TOA tutorial “Using Microsoft Word’s Table of Authorities.” If you want to watch me go through the steps above, here’s a quick screencast of me doing it on my own computer:

Once you have marked all your citations, you can insert your Table of Authorities from the References tab. That button is on the far right end of the References tab.

Insert TOA button in Microsoft Word

You will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Word-TOA-dialog-boxClick on each category and make sure the formatting is correct (most of the time, it should be fine). If you want to modify the Style for any entries, use the same trick you used for the headings above by reformatting it within the brief, then right-clicking on the modified entry and saving the changes to the Style:


Step Six: Update All Fields

Once you have marked all your citations and inserted all your Tables, you will want to make sure everything has been updated before printing or saving to PDF. The fastest way to do this is to select the entire text of the document using the shortcut key CTRL-A and then pressing the F9 key to update all.

Post-Filing: Make a Template To Shorten the Process for Your Next Brief

You are probably wondering why we didn’t go ahead and make a template to begin with. After all, don’t you start with a template and end up with a finished brief?

That is totally logical, but here’s the thing: to make a really good template that you can use for all your future briefs, you really need to understand the process of formatting a brief. And the only way to really understand it is to have struggled through it at least once from scratch. If you have been through this whole exercise, you probably changed your mind a few times about certain formatting choices like your headings. Once you have filed a finished brief, that is the perfect time to strip out the case specific stuff and save the bare-bones file as a Microsoft Word template.

To resave your document as a template file, go to the File tab in Word 2010 (or the Office Button in Word 2007) and, instead of saving it as a regular Word document (.doc), click the drop-down list next to “Save as type” and choose Word Template:


Depending on which operating system and version you’re using, Microsoft Word makes template files most accessible from a specific default location on your hard drive. Of course, you can store your templates anywhere, but the point of storing them in Microsoft’s default location is to make them accessible via the File > New command:


To find the default location for your templates, click on the File tab in Word 2010 (or the Office Button in Word 2007), choose Options, and then go to Advanced. Scroll all the way down to the bottom and click on the File Locations button. You’ll get a dialog box that looks like this:


Click on the Modify button, and Word will take you to the folder where your templates are currently being stored. If you don’t like that location, here’s your chance to change it.

Once you have created your new template and save it in the right place, you’re ready to use it for your next brief. Just go to File > New and click on My templates, then find your appellate brief template in the dialog box. When you double-click on it, Microsoft Word will create a new document using your template. If, at any point, you want to revise your template, you will need to navigate to it using Windows Explorer and double-click on the .dotx file itself. After you’ve made any necessary adjustments, save the file and close it.

As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. But the formatting tricks you learn while constructing an appellate brief can be applied in all sorts of contexts, and taking a few minutes to “genericize” your latest brief into a template will enable you to spend less time fussing over formatting and more time lawyering.

Originally published 2012-10-17. Last updated 2015-07-17.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows. 

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  • Chris Olson

    Great tutorial. I can’t tell you how frustrating and time consuming it was to write my first appellate brief. The formatting took me as long as the legal writing! Now that I have a decent template I an focus on the important stuff, the writing.

  • Jenny Weigel

    On behalf of appellate writing profs everywhere, thank you, thank you, thank you! I review a number of elements of formatting with my students, but don’t cover it as extensively or have it all in one place. This is now going to be required reading for my 2Ls.

  • Bankr. S.D. Awesome

    This is FANTASTIC. Thank you for having all of this information in one place.

  • Avocats

    At some point, our system must evolve to eliminate the special rules for each court and each judge. This is an enormous waste of a client’s money, all in the service of judges’ egos.

  • michael caldwell

    Wonderful article. It will take some re-reading since I am new to MS Word.

  • Benicia Livorsi

    Thank you so much for this great article. I am a Missouri appellate lawyer and I have been using styles and the TOA features in Word since law school in the mid-1990s. To this day, I have only seen one other attorney using Word to the degree of this article. I have a few additional suggestions though, for your brief:
    1) Create autocorrect entries for your most used citation formats. For example I type sw2 and it converts to S.W.2d. I type mca and it converts it to (Mo. Ct. App. with a space for the year”
    2) Create a shortcut key for the section symbol for typing statutes. The citation search tool appears more reliable searching for that symbol than the shorthand Sec.
    3) Use quick correct for your signature block
    4) Use field codes in your certificate of compliance. In Missouri we have to state our word count and so I insert the field for word count into my shell compliance certificate;
    5) Type the names of your sections (the ones you would assign Heading 1 to) along with your compliance certification with the field code for word count and your basic signature block into your template. In Missouri, every brief needs
    a) Table of Contents;
    b) Table of Authorities
    c) Points relied on
    d) Jurisdictional statement
    e) Statement of Facts
    f) Argument including standard of review for each issue
    g) Conclusion
    h) Compliance certificate and
    I) Cover
    By placing all of these headers on individual sheets and saving it as an appellate brief template you can save a lot of time and help make sure you don’t forget an important section of your brief. Your coversheet should have the basics for the Court and the party titles (such as Respondent and Appellant) and the names of the client and appeal number should be all that needs to be changed with each cover on the template.
    I would also add with Table of Authorities, I inevitably accidentally mark a case as a statute category or vice versa. By learning the categories used in TOA, you can turn field codes on and change the category from a 1 to a 2 or vice versa and then regenerate the TOA. You only need to fix this mistake on the first instance you marked the citation since the “short cites” don’t reference the categories. You don’t have to
    hunt down each cite and delete the short cite, etc…just correct the first instance. That also works if you realize you marked a few characters too early so that the cite which shows up alphabetized correctly.

  • m.sola

    Hello, great information! What about adding a new “category” in TOA? Say I want a separate category for Supreme Court authorities, Circuit authorities, etc. Thanks.

  • Jeremy A. Rose

    So…I read something like this and think, “how stupid – this is common sense (i.e., black font, margins, double spacing, etc.)”. But then I think, “wait, these rules must exist for a reason…” I’ve often thought this, but perhaps us young-ish lawyers (34) take too much for granted.

    So my question is, is this really for lawyers who don’t exclusively practice appellate law, or is this just for all lawyers? I will freely admit that my first brief in federal court relied heavily upon that judge’s local rules. But if you do it one, you have a template and it’s easy-peasy from there. So it seems these rules are geared towards newbie attorneys.

    Then again, I still, on occasion, have opposing counsel who, instead of e-signing pleadings, will print them, sign them, and then scan them back in.

    As much as we love to castigate ludditie lawyers, however, I’ve been seriously schooled by such ludidties. No judge has ever applauded me for my use of TrialPad with my iPad (although I still think they have been impressed). A lack of knowledge of the law and the facts won’t replace any amount of tech knowledge.

  • Lauren

    I appreciate this tutorial. However due to likely user error, my brief’s formatting just kind of fell apart right before it was due. I’m just not that great with Microsoft Office. However I thought I’d post here because I found an appellate brief template you can download and it literally saved my life. The site’s name is and it has an appellate brief template that’s saved in Word format. I spent hours trying to format my brief only to it all go to shit at the end. After I downloaded it, I literally just copied and pasted my argument into the template and it worked perfectly. I recommend to anybody who’s pressed for time and has to turn in an appellate brief.